Aside from the curse, I couldn’t believe Hell’s second biggest problem was a rickety old door. I squinted at Wrath. I had a growing suspicion he hadn’t revealed the worst part. “And?”
“Creatures that don’t feel like facing trials in the Portals of a Thousand Fears have slipped through. The gates are continuing to weaken, despite our best efforts. It’s only a matter of time before they completely break. We’ve tried keeping them away, but some things have already arrived in this world.”
“A few lesser demons.”
“Not likely. They are summoned.”
It wasn’t exactly comforting. Demons were starting to invade our world. And I had a terrible feeling it would get much worse before it got better. “Anything we should be concerned about in particular then?”
“You should be concerned about the Aper demon, for one.”
“The . . . what?”
“Aper demon. Head of a boar, tusks of an elephant. Huge reptilian bodies, cleft hooves. Dumb as an ox, but they’ve got a particular fondness for witch blood. A thousand tiny teeth in double rows make them very accomplished with swiftly draining a body.”
Wrath’s growing smile was positively wicked as he glanced over my shoulder. A wet snuff near the base of my neck had me breaking an instant sweat. One hoof clattered on the cobblestones, followed by another. The ground vibrated beneath whatever had taken those two mammoth steps. A shadow fell across the table. Sweet goddess above, I so did not want to turn around.
“Whatever you do, witch, don’t run.”
There is no greater threat to a witch than a demon who craves her blood. Once its thirst has been provoked, it will relentlessly pursue the cause of its addiction, stopping only when the source has run dry. To ward against this dark energy, pin a sachet of dried yarrow inside your clothing during each new moon.
—Notes from the di Carlo grimoire
Wrath’s warning came a second too late. When I wasn’t focused on running for my life, I’d later wonder if it was intentional on his part. I hiked up my skirts and plunged into the twilight-colored streets, the sound of pursuit ringing all around me.
I charged down one narrow alley into the next, jumping over baskets of dried goods. I didn’t look back for fear of losing momentum. There was no way I’d end up drained of blood because curiosity got the better of me. As I dodged past closed doors and ducked under laundry lines, the clattering of cloven footsteps behind me never faltered or slowed.
I wasn’t just terrified for myself, I worried about any unsuspecting human unfortunate enough to be in my path as I led a hungry demon through the cramped quarters. I almost stumbled as reality crashed into me. A demon was chasing me through the streets of my city. Somehow it had breached the gates of Hell. And, if this was only the beginning . . . I couldn’t finish the thought.
I knocked into an empty barrel, and threw it in the beast’s path. My netherworldly attacker halted for all of a second before wood shattered. Not good. My witch blood gave me a little more strength than a human, but the creature tore through the barrel like paper.
My foot caught in a cobblestone, and I couldn’t stop morbid curiosity from taking over as I caught myself against a building and tossed a glance over my shoulder. I was ready to freeze from unrelenting horror as Death cornered me, its maw open wide, ready to devour me bones and all, but nothing was there. I warily glanced around. No demon lurked behind fluttering clothing. No wet-nosed snuffs broke the silence. The complete and utter unnatural silence.
Blood and bones.
Chills erupted out of nowhere. Like the first night I’d heard the disembodied voice of an Umbra demon, all sounds of life vanished around me. I wasn’t alone—I just couldn’t see any danger coming. But I sensed it closing in—a claw-tipped hand reaching out in the dark. Demons must have the ability to cloak themselves with some sort of glamour. Which was just perfect.
I turned and ran as fast as I could, and bounced off a body that was ice cold to the touch. I fell and crab-walked backward, slowly dragging my gaze up at my destruction. Apparently I’d been wrong about the glamour. It hadn’t been hiding at all—it just moved too fast for me to see it. It wasn’t moving now. The Aper demon was everything Wrath described and worse. Its enormous head resembled a wild boar almost perfectly, except for its bright red eyes. Slits of black carved down the middle of the irises, reminding me of a cat straight out of Hell.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Counted to ten, then opened them again. The demon was really there, and it was even worse than the first time I looked at it.
Thick globs of black drool dripped down its muzzle as its teeth clicked in anticipation. Its breath smelled like a fetid swamp on a hot summer day. I pushed up onto unsteady legs, and slowly inched away from those vicious, snapping instruments of death. The demon followed.
Every instinct I had shouted for me to flee, but I refused to break eye contact with it. I had a feeling if I turned my back, it’d pounce. No matter what I had to do to survive, I would live to see my family again. The demon moved swiftly when I went to turn left, so I moved in the opposite direction.
We maintained that same slow dance until we were trapped down a dead end. On my right there was a thick steel door with a pawprint holding a stalk of something painted onto the metal. The Aper demon stood before it, snuffing the air. Bloodlust gleamed in its strange red eyes.
Finally remembering the moon-blessed chalk in my pocket, I slowly reached down. One second I was standing, the next I was on the ground with teeth snapping at my neck. Pain shot through me, but was eclipsed by a more immeditate threat. Thousands of teeth were ready to slurp my blood. Hot breath touched my skin, and a low whine from the demon followed. Panic set in. I wouldn’t die like this. I couldn’t.
I fought wildly, but the demon was too strong. It drew back, ready to sink its teeth in and then . . . gray sludge exploded from the beast.
A blade shot through where the demon’s heart used to be, and shadows writhed like snakes from the wound. I cringed away, watching the dagger pull the shadows in and seemingly absorb the demon’s life force. The point stopped just shy of piercing my chest. I held my breath, waiting for Death to defy whoever had stolen its prize and claim me anyway.
I looked up, not into Death’s face, but the demon of war’s.
Wrath yanked the dead behemoth away and tossed its carcass aside. He sheathed his demon-slaying dagger, then knelt down. His expression was as hard as his tone. Which was helpful—I needed something to focus on besides the overwhelming terror coursing through me.
“Lesson number one: when fighting a demon, always have some weapon at the ready. Whether it’s spell chalk or a defensive charm. If you don’t have defensive magic, now’s the time to acquaint yourself with that part of your lineage. Demons are apex predators. They’re faster and stronger than you. Their sole purpose is to kill, and they’re very good at it.”
I leaned against the building, panting, waiting for the trembling to pass. If Wrath hadn’t gotten to me when he did, my family would have buried another child. Well, if there’d been anything left of me to bury. Tears pricked my eyes. I’d been forced into a game I knew nothing about and I was losing. Badly.
“Can you stand?”
I could barely breathe. But that had nothing to do with terror anymore, now I was ready to strike out. And I had my sights set on the demon prince looming above me. I maneuvered into a sitting position, and swatted his proffered hand away.
“What, are you my teacher now?”
“An opportunity to turn this into a teachable exercise arose on its own. Lessons were never part of our bargain, so you’re welcome.”
I stared up at him, speechless at the flash of concern he was too slow to hide. He’d genuinely been worried about me. I was so startled, I forgot to jab him back.
I waited another minute before standing. Wrath’s gaze traveled over me a second time.
I glanced down at gelatinous gray globs that I assumed used to be innards of the demon. Now I smelled like a fetid swamp. Fantastico. I never thought I’d long for the days when stinking of garlic and onion were my biggest worries.
“Do you recognize that symbol?” He nodded toward the door with the pawprint.
“I . . .” I tried wiping demon sludge from my dress. “I need a minute.”
“For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have let the demon kill you. Maybe a slight nip.”
“Comforting as ever.”
I stepped up to his side and stared at the door. I’d been terrified over the Aper demon attack, angry with Wrath about the impromptu lesson, and now fear took residence in my thoughts once more. I had no idea which of his brothers would use a pawprint, and wasn’t eager to find out.
“Is this pawprint Envy’s House symbol?” I asked. Wrath shook his head. “Do any of your brothers require a stalk of wheat for their summonings?”
“I believe that’s actually a fennel stalk.”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to know how he’d gleaned that from the crude symbol on the door. But it did force puzzle pieces together in my mind. I’d recently seen that symbol before, but couldn’t recall when or where. Possibly somewhere in the city while we’d been wandering the streets. Or maybe in Vittoria’s diary? She’d had plenty of sketches and strange symbols in the margins. I had barely slept and the last few days had taken their toll on my memory. Once we left here, I’d go straight home and grab the diary.
Wrath shot me a sidelong glance. “Want to see what’s inside?”
I most definitely did not. I couldn’t escape a slow, creeping feeling of dread. Maybe it was simply a coincidence that we ended up here, or maybe it was part of a larger, more sinister design. Either way, I felt like we were about to enter a lion’s den, and I was as excited as a fawn knowingly being led to slaughter. I swallowed hard. “Yes.”
Wrath shook his head once before shouldering the door open for us.